The Quantum Karateka

…step outside the dojo.

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The truth is always more complex

I was on the job the other day and passed by this ubiquitous billboard that I’m sure you’ve seen somewhere too (at least in LA that is):

There are a few things that are interesting to note here. The first thing has to do with the fact that the billboard uses the face of German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, to promote its cause by relying on the oft-repeated legend of Einstein not being a successful student. And if you’re like many people, including myself, you’ve probably already got in your head the anecdotal story of Einstein failing specifically in mathematics as a young student. Now, on any other day I would have passed by this billboard and not really gave it much more thought than: “Yeah. Einstein was a genius. So what?”. But recently I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography of the man. One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is that this legendary “fact” is in reality, False (notice the capital “F”?). Here are some humorous passages:

One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a student, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase “as everyone knows,” by scores of books and thousands of websites designed to reassure underachieving students. It even made it into the famous “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” newspaper column.

Alas, Einstein’s childhood offers history many savory ironies, but this is not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley’s column with the headline “Greatest Living Mathematician Failed in Mathematics.” Einstein laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In primary school, he was at the top of his class…As for math, far from being a failure, he was “far above the school requirements.” By age 12, his sister recalled, “he already had a predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic,” and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and algebra on his own…Not only did he learn the proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying to prove them on his own. “Play and playmates were forgotten,” she noted. “For days on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution, not giving up before he had found it.” (pg. 16 – 17)

So that’s kind of an important misbelief to squash here. Einstein was pretty much exhibiting signs of his Einstein-ness even as a young student. The second thing that struck me while reading Isaacson’s book is that one of the qualities he points out as critical to Einstein’s “genius” has a lot more to do with his unabashed questioning of authority/establishment/tradition/status-quo than it does with this nebulous value of “confidence” that the billboard is promoting. Another passage:

His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times.

His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom in ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. And as for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. “When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance,” Einstein once explained. “The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have.” (pg. 8 – 9)

Now, I’m not pointing all this out to deny that “confidence” isn’t an important quality to have or that Einstein didn’t have that. But I think the people behind this billboard campaign are dumbing down the truth to fit their agenda. A more accurate statement of values would probably read something like “Question Established Authority” or even “Imagination” or “Creativity” as the tagline. And that’s the last thing I want to point out here about this billboard. The problem in society isn’t that students aren’t more confident about their abilities and that’s why they’re dropping out of school. The problem has something more to do with the ways in which our society measures intelligence and determines who is capable and who is not. And so while it may be a fact that Einstein wasn’t received well in school by some of his teachers, this really had nothing to do with his lack of intelligence, but rather, his lack of respect for authority. I’ll leave you with one last passage which comes at the end of chapter one:

As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders…That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. “Long live impudence!” he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife. “It is my guardian angel in this world.” Many years later, when others thought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed that he had lost his edge, he lamented, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” … His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. “It is important to foster individuality,” he said, “for only the individual can produce the new ideas.” (pg. 7)

Long live impudence. Imagine that on a billboard.
– QK


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Reflections on the study group

I don’t wanna write this down
I wanna tell you how I feel right now
I don’t wanna take no time to write this down
I wanna tell you how I feel right now…

Mos Def

So it’s been a little over a month now since I’ve started my study group. We’ve had eleven sessions so far. What began as a once a week thing then doubled into twice a week. What originally began in my Sensei’s dojo has since moved to another location. And what began with one person has now become three people, albeit not all at the same time.

So I should be pretty satisfied with this fair amount of progress in such a short amount of time, shouldn’t I?

Kinda sorta.

I always feel sad and mildly disappointed when people have to cancel or don’t bother to call when they don’t show up. It makes me feel like I suck, that I’m not doing enough or that maybe I’m following the wrong path in life. And there’s always this smoldering anxiety, more intense on some days than others, that I’m just not good enough or skilled enough to even be doing what I’m doing, despite my explicit intention not to make this group be about that. The way I like to see it sometimes is like: I’m in a punk band; I can only play three chords on the guitar; my voice quality is less singing and more screaming; and I can only play songs at one tempo…barely.

But I happen to like those qualities actually. I’ve always enjoyed tinkering and putting things together. I like making do with what I have. I like the idea of being a “bastard”/DIY martial artist, musician and filmmaker, but kicking ass none-the-less. I like proving to people that you don’t need tons of money, prestigious degrees or loads of charisma to bring your vision forth into the world. I mean, those things can help you of course. But the quality I find to be most important in any endeavor is integrity. Why do you do what you do? What is at the root of your pursuit? In a world where just looking like the part can get you the part, who or what is the real thing? It’s like, you can have big name actors in your film, a big budget, a big studio to financially back you, a big everything, and if your basic script/storyline sucks, then what do you really have? You have a lot of make-up to cover over the blemishes. A lot of chemical freshener to cover up the smell. A lot of paint to hide the rot.

Well, like I said, I like the idea of being a DIY-bastard artist, but shit ain’t always so fluffy if you know what I mean. My analyst wondered aloud at my last session why it was that I seemed to lack self-confidence and self-esteem. Together we speculated that maybe it had something to do with the fact that I’ve always moved around as a child and into my adolescence. Always a feeling of instability and uncertainty and temporality. Settling down and making friends in one place, only to move and have to do it all over again. Yeah, it would be easy to blame my father for this, for it was his job that forced me into those circumstances. But, no. It’s not anyone’s fault. Viktor Frankl could have easily blamed the Nazi’s for a shitty life, but then he wouldn’t have had the impetus to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Anyway, back to my study group reflections. I’m really curious to know how far this will go. I’m surprised that things have actually been working out well. Having a space to do this in was the biggest thing. Where we’re at now is on the second floor of a music rehearsal studio. The guy who owns it is a guy whom I used to know in my early twenties when I rented out a drum room from him. I never thought over a decade later I’d be using his make-shift gym for my training or that he even did martial arts at all. And if I hadn’t gotten this job I currently have, then I wouldn’t have jammed with my co-worker at this very studio which is how I found out about the space in the first place. It’s really kind of a trip actually. I mean, if I just rewind all that, I wouldn’t even be doing any of this if I hadn’t made the decision to move back to Torrance (aka, the little village from which I left back in 2012). It’s really quite amazing actually.


So wherever this group is going, I don’t know. I certainly do have a better, more evolved vision for it than I did back in Oakland. I think it lasted about a month over there before I stopped it and then made my way to Seattle. If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to the Meetup site I created (again):

Yeah, that’s right, I graphic designed that fairly cool logo myself. Although I basically copped the format from something else. Well, cool compared to the original logo I had, which now just seems like a stick-figure drawing in my eyes. The logo doesn’t matter anyways; I just needed to have something that could visually represent the group. Although, I always have an eye for aesthetics. I mean I think form is less important than function, but form can look good too no? It’s like the logo for a band or the font titles for a movie. You could have the best made album/movie in the history of music/film, but if your packaging sucks, then I don’t wanna own that shit. Sorry, digression…

One last thing to leave you with: a video clip of me and my training buddy Anthony tinkering with some made-up applications for Fukyukata Ichi. Not sure that Nagamine Sensei incorporated any combative strategy when he thought up this kata; not to say he didn’t. But we decided to pick apart this kata because it’s so basic and because it’s so stereotypical of what karate looks like to laypeople (down blocks/upper blocks and straight punches in the air). Here it is (it’s okay you can laugh; I’m new at this applied stuff):

– Quantum


The death of the Oracle and the end of this blog

Greetings my fellow citizens,

Yesterday, October 5th, 2015, the eminent philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs died at her home in east Detroit. She was 100 years of age. As you may or may not know, this blog was begun during the last month of my time in Detroit. I considered it a kind of creative expression of my thoughts, much inspired by the literal journey I began there and the new sense of self it had given to me, not only in relation to karate. The graffiti I once saw on a wall there sums it up best: “There is no try in DetrOIT”. In other words, DO IT. Whatever it is…a spiritual journey, pursuing your passions, or starting a blog. Do it. Now. Don’t wait. There’s no time. The world needs you. We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.

And so, with the death of the great Grandmother – the old woman who has seen epochs – the great sage who admonished us with the question, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” – with her passing, comes the passing of this blog. A small pin prick in the vast universe of the internet.

Thank you Grace. For bringing us together. For inspiring me with your ideas. For living long and being brave enough to change with the times…

“Don’t get stuck in old ideas.”

– The Quantum Karateka

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Karate nursery rhyme

“Karate is like…”

…a lift-gate slamming down on your toes

Or like the misfortune of getting caught in some farm machinery by a piece of your clothes

Karate is joints bending in the wrong direction

And other extreme damage that’ll totally ruin fuck up your complexion

Eye gouges and testicle grabs

Definitely unsportsmanlike

This is dirty fighting down to a science

Not about looking nice.

– QK

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Education…What it is a good for?

Just some thoughts about education and teaching that I’m not sure how to coherently arrange, so I’ll just hodgepodge it…

Young people spend at least 13 years of their lives going through “public education”. Thirteen years is a long-ass time. That being said, what those kids and young people are learning and how they are learning (that is to say, how they are being taught) seems critical to me. I mean, who was it that said that the real social revolution we’re looking for starts in the schools. Krishnamurti? Whoever said that was right.

Education is not merely underfunded. That means it is undervalued, underestimated and misunderstood. If money is this society’s material measurement of what it deems valuable, what is this society spending most of its money on?

In my personal opinion, the relationship between student and teacher needs to be one in which the student feels comfortable (i.e. safe) enough to ask critical/challenging questions. This does not mean the student needs to feel all buddy-buddy with their instructor. It means that, the student should feel un-intimidated, un-threatened.

“Practice Means Failure” should be the motto of every school, martial arts in particular. Practice should not be getting it right to perfection and being criticized for every mistake along the way. Mistakes are what get you to the goal. Without mistakes there is no learning happening. Just automatonery. If your instructor is criticizing you for doing something “wrong”, then find another instructor. You can do no wrong in learning. There is only right and wrong in application, and even that has no definitive boundary. There is only what works and what doesn’t. And through live application, the student may get their own sense of how to get to the goal.

– QK